What Does a Bureaucracy Do?
Modern society relies on the effective functioning of government to provide public goods, enhance quality of life, and stimulate economic growth. The activities by which government achieves these functions include—but are not limited to—taxation, homeland security, immigration, foreign affairs, and education. The more society grows and the need for government services expands, the more challenging bureaucratic management and public administration becomes. Public administration is both the implementation of public policy in government bureaucracies and the academic study that prepares civil servants for work in those organizations.
The classic version of a bureaucracy is hierarchical and can be described by an organizational chart that outlines the separation of tasks and worker specialization while also establishing a clear unity of command by assigning each employee to only one boss. Moreover, the classic bureaucracy employs a division of labor under which work is separated into smaller tasks assigned to different people or groups. Given this definition, bureaucracy is not unique to government but is also found in the private and nonprofit sectors. That is, almost all organizations are bureaucratic regardless of their scope and size; although public and private organizations differ in some important ways. For example, while private organizations are responsible to a superior authority such as an owner, board of directors, or shareholders, federal governmental organizations answer equally to the president, Congress, the courts, and ultimately the public. The underlying goals of private and public organizations also differ. While private organizations seek to survive by controlling costs, increasing market share, and realizing a profit, public organizations find it more difficult to measure the elusive goal of operating with efficiency and effectiveness.
To learn more about the practice of public administration and opportunities to get involved in your local community, explore the American Society for Public Administration website.
Bureaucracy may seem like a modern invention, but bureaucrats have served in governments for nearly as long as governments have existed. Archaeologists and historians point to the sometimes elaborate bureaucratic systems of the ancient world, from the Egyptian scribes who recorded inventories to the biblical tax collectors who kept the wheels of government well greased. In Europe, government bureaucracy and its study emerged before democracies did. In contrast, in the United States, a democracy and the Constitution came first, followed by the development of national governmental organizations as needed, and then finally the study of U.S. government bureaucracies and public administration emerged.
In fact, the long pedigree of bureaucracy is an enduring testament to the necessity of administrative organization. More recently, modern bureaucratic management emerged in the eighteenth century from Scottish economist Adam Smith’s support for the efficiency of the division of labor and from Welsh reformer Robert Owen’s belief that employees are vital instruments in the functioning of an organization. However, it was not until the mid-1800s that the German scholar Lorenz von Stein argued for public administration as both a theory and a practice since its knowledge is generated and evaluated through the process of gathering evidence. For example, a public administration scholar might gather data to see whether the timing of tax collection during a particular season might lead to higher compliance or returns. Credited with being the father of the science of public administration, von Stein opened the path of administrative enlightenment for other scholars in industrialized nations.